As has been highlighted earlier within this portfolio, the city forms the main focal point of Abbott’s Changing New York and, due to this, the concept of the city and “sense of place” (Lippard, 1997) can be brought to attention. I will argue that there are two main ways the city and, by association, place are represented within Changing New York; the first being through representations of change which the title of Abbott’s project would suggest. The second, which can be seen to contribute to the idea of change, is the lived experiences of the inhabitants within the city and how, through this, their environments are shaped.
From previous analysis within this portfolio, and from Abbott’s admission herself, this project’s central theme was “the documentation of change” (Yochelson, 1997: 21) yet it is what this change symbolises that becomes interesting in this discussion. Change and the city are an inherent coupling, as highlighted in the work of Lucy Lippard (1997). She states that this is due to cities facing “the future rather than the past” (1997: 202) which can be applied to New York - especially 1930s New York. In Abbott’s initial attempts at photographing the city, prior to government funding, she became aware that her pictures were containing “subjects that were disappearing in the wake of accelerated change” (Yochelson, 1997: 14). Andrew Jenkins, Arie Croitoru, Andrew T. Crooks and Anthony Stefanidis offer another viewpoint towards the concept of change and place, stating that, due to the progressive nature of the “concept of place”, places are “reconstituted with new meaning” as a consequence of “urban dynamics …, evolving sociocultural perceptions …, or significant events” (2016: 2). The “skyscraper building boom” (Yochelson, 1997: 12) that was occurring in New York at the time appears to fit all three of these reasons, put forth by Jenkins et. al., as the impact America’s “corporate power” had upon “urban development” was documented by Abbott and shown for the shift it caused to “the citizens’ independence and autonomy” (Gouliaris, Giouzepas and Tsaras, 2016: 196). In addition to this, this approach towards change being associated with social effects is supported by Sarah Awad as she highlights the relationship memory has with changes in city spaces (2017). Although this article may be referencing the changes in Cairo’s city space, her points can be related to Changing New York and pick up from earlier analysis within this portfolio’s previous discussion of discourses surrounding memory and identity. Awad suggests that “city spaces are filled with symbols that communicate certain stories about a community’s past” (234). She describes these symbols being found “in monuments, historical buildings, politicians’ billboards, graffiti and street art, or ruins of destructed structures” that are all intended “to shape the public space by preserving certain memories while intentionally concealing others” (234-235). She highlights memory as being “both a personal and social act” which “is influenced by the possibilities and constraints of the environment around us” (237). Therefore, from this analysis, it could be suggested that the city and sense of place are represented by change through the comparison between the past, present and future which is facilitated by the collective memory of the inhabitants.
The second way that the city and the sense of place are represented within Changing New York can be seen within the lived experience (Lippard, 1997) of the inhabitants. Within Lippard’s analysis of the sense of place, and how it references the inhabitants’ experiences, she references the term “region” moving away from its definition as “a politically or geographically delimited space” and instead being appreciated as a space “determined by stories, loyalties, group identity, common experiences and histories” (1997: 34). This concept is supported by Jenkins et. al. as they define place as being “one's perception of a location as it relates to one's sociocultural views and personal experiences” (2016: 1). They continue, stating that it is through the recurrences “of experiences and activities” that changes the “location from a geometric concept (its three dimensional shape) to an experiential construct (conveying personal and/or public perceptions)” (2). Yet, within Abbott’s photographs, she “defended the relative unimportance of people in her street scenes” (Yochelson, 1997: 17) which raises the question of how can the individual’s experience be highlighted purely through architectural photography? Through Awad’s analysis of symbols that can be found within cities, she states that these symbols “get transformed, re-understood, and changed by different social actors in a continuous dialogue” (240). Therefore, if we apply the buildings photographed by Abbott to Awad’s definition of a symbol, and view the individuals’ lived experiences as social actors, it could be said that the buildings come to represent the sense of place from the inhabitants perspective as buildings are shaped and defined by the people that inhabit and use them.
Changing New York is a project that can be analysed in multiple different ways due to its vast amount of content and its depiction of wide ranging views of New York. This essay has attempted to determine how the city and sense of place are represented within this project and has highlighted two approaches. An initial approach explained how it is through aspects of change that these concepts are represented as progression and development are key parts of a city. This was highlighted by the title of the project and how change is drawn attention to by collective memory of the inhabitants of a space as they use this to appreciate the past, present and future of the city. The latter approach drew upon the earlier reference to the inhabitants of a city and how their presence within it influences the environment around them and, subsequently, their sense of place. Therefore, although the presence and importance of people within Abbott’s photography was limited, in this regard the city and sense of place is represented through the people of the city themselves as the buildings can be seen as a representation of the individuals and communities living within the city.
Abbott, B. (1938) Contrasting 331 East 39th Street with Chrysler Building and Daily News Building. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Middle East Side: Plate 20
Abbott, B. (1935) Oak and New Chambers Streets. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Lower East Side: Plate 5
Abbott, B. (1936) Construction Old and New. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Lower West Side: Plate 1
Abbott, B. (1936) Children's Aid Society Summer Home. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Outer Boroughs: Plate 18